The time has come for me to bid a fond farewell to my favorite era of cinema history, the 1920s through the end of World War II. It wasn’t the best era; after all, the repressive Hays Code was in play for much of it, and while modern cinema could stand to be a lot more inclusive, particularly in welcoming and supporting directors and screenwriters who aren’t straight white men, it’s certainly more inclusive than, say, 1933, when an actor like Morgan Freeman, instead of crushing it in important roles in films like The Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby, would have been lucky to find extra work in King Kong. Also, three of my five favorite classic films of all time — To Kill a Mockingbird, Singin’ in the Rain, and It’s a Wonderful Life — come from this postwar era. Yet for some reason even I don’t quite understand, I find the movies of the 20s and 30s more purely fascinating than anything more recent, perhaps because through them I can look back at a time when the overall aura of cinema was one of glamor rather than grit, of magic rather than realism. Adieu, my shiny, glitzy Hollywood. We’re heading into darker territory.
1945: The Lost Weekend [Never Seen]
This dramatization of an alcoholic’s descent into madness has been called the most depressing Best Picture winner to date. This hasn’t made me especially eager to see it. Eventually I might, if curiosity compels me.
1946: The Best Years of Our Lives [Good]
I can’t quite put this film in God-Tier, because It’s a Wonderful Life came out the same year and should, I believe, have won Best Picture. The triumph of Best Years at the Oscars may have owed a lot to the film’s timeliness — it tells the story of the difficulties of three veterans (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell) to readjust to civilian life after the War — as well as Wonderful Life‘s dismal box office showing. Yet on its own merits, this film is very good indeed, well acted by all parties, including Myrna Loy as March’s patient but not passive wife, Virginia Mayo as Andrews’ shallow wife who loses all interest in him the minute she sees him in civilian clothes, and Teresa Wright as March and Loy’s sweet. smart daughter, toward whom the unhappy Andrews is drawn. Veteran Russell, who lost his hands in combat, earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as a young man with the same injury, and his scenes with Cathy O’Donnell, as his loyal fiancee who senses him pulling away from her, are both heartbreaking and (ultimately) heartwarming. The only problem, quality-wise, that I have with the movie is that it takes its own sweet time getting started. If you can make it through the first thirty minutes or so, your patience will be rewarded.
1947: Gentleman’s Agreement [Not for Me]
It’s with regret that I come at last to the first of the Best Picture winners I actively dislike. I’ve seen it once, and have no intention of ever seeing it again. The premise is strong — as research for an article on anti-Semitism, a journalist (Gregory Peck) pretends to be Jewish so he might experience the bigotry first-hand — and some of the performances are solid, including Peck, John Garfield as his best friend, and Celeste Holm as a glamorous, whip-smart magazine writer. But every bit of credit this movie earns is completely undone by an infuriating, shameful cop-out ending that I can’t discuss in detail without Spoilers. I can only tell you that it still makes me angry every time I think about it, even though it’s been more than two decades since I watched it. In all the years before or since, I can recall no other movie so utterly ruined by a conclusion that (although I can’t find positive proof) must surely have been studio-mandated. I include this article for the curious; its view of the movie is far more tolerant than mine, but it does go into detail about my problems with it.
1948: Hamlet [Never Seen]
Laurence Olivier was a gift to classic cinema, but this big-screen adaptation of what many consider Shakespeare’s greatest play is so heavily truncated that I’ve never felt the driving need to see it. Again, maybe one day.
1949: All the King’s Men [Okay]
I’ve seen this one, but I have clearer memories of the Robert Penn Warren novel on which it was based — a fictionalized account of the career of crooked Louisiana politician Huey Long, called Willie Stark in the novel and film — than I do of this movie. I don’t remember hating it especially, but it hasn’t stuck with me. Its fellow nominee, military drama Twelve O’Clock High, which features a stronger and more complex Gregory Peck performance than Gentleman’s Agreement, has made a far more lasting impact on me.
1950: All About Eve [Good]
Here I come to another Best Picture winner with a disappointing ending, though not (as with Gentleman’s Agreement) an infuriating, movie-ruining one. This cynical study of life in the theater, narrated by the deliciously cynical George Sanders as a poison-pen critic, tells the story of a renowned actress at the top of her game (Bette Davis) betrayed by an ambitious young upstart (Anne Baxter). Sanders, Davis, and Baxter are all superb, as are Celeste Holm, as a playwright’s wife and Davis’ best friend, and Thelma Ritter (who is never not amazing) as Davis’ dresser. In most respects, thanks not only to the performances but to the razor-sharp dialogue, the film hasn’t dated at all. Yet in one aspect, it’s sadly a product of its time: it asks you to accept that Davis’ marvelous diva Margo Channing, realizing that she’s getting on in years and soon won’t be able to play the leading roles she’s used to, would give up Broadway and happily settle down to a life of domestic bliss with the director she loves (Gary Merrill). Sorry. Not buying it. Margo the housewife wouldn’t be Margo at all; she’ll be the queen of a community theater group in less than a year.